More on William Seward, another walk through the Golden Age, and writing like a rifle: newsletter, November 13, 2020

November 15, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, Civil War, history, newsletter, reporters, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,5xx) on Friday, November 13, 2020.

Some people cook and bake. Some people collect. Some make things. Some draw and paint, some listen (to music, etc.), some watch (birds, airplanes, insects, old movies, etc.), some read. The list could go on and on, of course. One of the words that we have for these activities is “hobby,” which seems a bit childish and inadequate if you are talking about the activities of an adult. Another word is “passion,” which comes a bit closer to the mark but maybe overshoots it a bit.

Still, whatever we do in this regard — and whatever word we use — the activities we pursue should be both deeply challenging and satisfying. Another word we could use is “love,” but we shy away from that one, too. Love is definitely an element, possibly the key element, in our motivation.

What are your passions, your hobbies, your loves? What do you do, not for money but for the pure joy of doing it? Whatever it is, I hope that you allow yourself some time and energy to do that very thing this weekend and that it is joyful.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,500 subscribers and had a 26.2 percent open rate; 2 persons unsubscribed.

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William Seward: Just enough virtue (part 2)

William Seward might have become president of the United States except for two words he uttered in a speech in 1858. The words were “irrepressible conflict.”

The words don’t sound like much to us today, but in that turbulent decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, they ignited flames that would do great damage to Seward’s presidential ambitions.

Seward had spent that decade navigating through the shifting tides of the issue of slavery and its expansion or containment. As a senator from New York, he had watched the disintegration of his Whig party over the issue and the rise of the Free-Soilers and eventually the formation of the Republican Party. He and his friend and political mentor Thurlow Weed, the publisher of the Albany Evening Journal, had played key roles in the consolidation of the party into a political force strong enough to put forth a candidate for president in 1856 (John C. Fremont).

While the Republicans did not win the presidency in 1856, it was obvious that public opinion in the North was flowing in their direction.

Not so in the South. Southerners had developed an ultra-sensitivity to anything anyone said that threatened their cherished slavery system. The words that Seward spoke, “irrepressible conflict,” landed on their ears as an acknowledgment that Northerners, particularly Republicans, had decided that they would attempt to get rid of slavery by force.

Part of this sensitivity was political. That is, no Southern politician in that political environment could lose by raising the specter of a Northern invasion of the South. But the words also tapped into a deep-seated fear among Southerners.

Seward was especially vulnerable to Southern hatred. He had made no secret of his opposition to slavery during his political career, and his position in 1858 as a chief spokesman of the Republican Party — the “Black Republicans,” as Southerners referred to them — caused Southerners to dissect and interpret every word that he said.

Had Southerners been generally aware of what was going on inside the Seward house in Auburn, New York, they would have raised even louder alarms. Seward’s wife, Frances, was a fully committed abolitionist, and while he was in Washington, D.C., she had made the house a stop on the Underground Railroad that assisted runaway slaves to their freedom.

But why did Seward’s words hurt his chances at the Republican presidential nomination in 1860s?

Many Republicans still believed that their party could make some in-roads into the South if they chose their words carefully and never implied that the North would try to force a non-slavery system onto the South. Many of them began to look around for another candidate who would not be such a lightning rod for the opposition. A few believed they found one in an obscure Illinois attorney named Abraham Lincoln.

William Seward ultimately did not achieve his dream of becoming president. Instead, he became Lincoln’s Secretary of State and as such rendered enormous service to the Republic and to the goal of the preservation of the Union. Few presidents have achieved more than Seward did in the years 1861-1865.

Seymour Topping, one of the great journalists of our Times

Between the end of World War II and 1950, the American news media ignored Vietnam. This drought ended when Seymour Topping, then a correspondent for the Associated Press, went there to cover the burgeoning conflict between the French and Ho Chi Minh’s forces.

Topping did not spend much time there. In Asia, there were stories elsewhere that editors in New York deemed more important.

By 1963, Topping was in Saigon again, this time a New York Times reporter who was covering America’s increasing involvement in that nation.

Working for the International News Agency and then the AP, Topping had been all over Asia, including China to see Mao’s army win a decisive victory.

His scoops and perceptive writing caught the eye of Times editors, who hired him in 1959. Over the next 34 years, he became pivotal to the paper’s coverage of world events.

As Moscow bureau chief, he broke the news of the U-2 spy plane incident in 1960 and the Sino-Soviet rift in 1963, and covered Soviet space shots and Nikita Khrushchev’s aggressive moves in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. As Southeast Asia bureau chief from 1963 to 1966, he covered the early American military involvement in Vietnam and wars in Laos and Cambodia. Source: Seymour Topping, Former Times Journalist and Eyewitness to History, Dies at 98 – The New York Times

Topping had one of the most remarkable journalistic careers of the 20th century. He died this past weekend at his home in White Plains, New York. He was 98 years old.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Time-travel back to the Golden Age with this list

Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and a few others personify the Golden Age of Detectives — the time generally between World War I and World War II — but there were many other authors writing at that time and in that genré.

Some of these are well worth reading, according to Martin Edwards of the Poison Pen Press.

Edwards recently made a list of these second-tier novelists to whom readers should pay attention:

Apart from all their other merits, Golden Age mysteries offer entertaining escapism and right now, faced with all the uncertainty of living through a pandemic, we can all do with some of that. Of course, crime fans know of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and the other ‘Queens of Crime’—but who are the unsung authors of the Golden Age whose work is worth exploring?

Today I’m focusing on ten authors who, I think, deserve to be more widely read. Some of them have had a few novels reprinted (or made available via digital publishing) in recent years, but as far as most readers are concerned, they all still fly under the radar. Source: Ten Golden Age Detective Novelists Who Deserve to Be Better Known | CrimeReads

No. 1 on his list? Henry Wade.

His crime fiction is remarkably varied—classic puzzles, police procedurals, inverted mysteries, even a witty account of the misadventures of a serial killer—and his mastery of plot is allied to a focus on character that was ahead of its time.

The people on the list are undoubtedly worth paying attention to, but you may have some difficulty finding them in your local library.

Or, if you would rather not tackle an entire novel, Edwards has edited a book of short stories titled The Long Arm of the Law, and its table of contents includes some of the people on his CrimeReads list. The Long Arm of the Law was published in 2017 and has a better chance of being on your library shelves. It’s also available on Amazon.

The Golden Age produced some great stories — long or short — and it’s fun to time-travel back to that era. Like watching an old noir movie, only better.

From the archives: Advice to young Tommy Wilson: load your sentences like a rifle, not a shotgun

A Scott Berg‘s biography of Woodrow Wilson contains the following passage on the Rev. Joseph Wilson‘s advice to his son on how to form sentences:

“When you frame a sentence, don’t do it as if you were loading a shotgun, but as if you were loading a rifle. Don’t fire in such a way and with such a load that while you hit the thing you aim at you will hit a lot of things in the neighbourhood besides; but shoot with a single bullet and hit that one thing alone.” (quoted material)

The reverend wasn’t talking to his son, the future president, about writing; he was telling him how to speak.

But the advice applies marvelously to writing. Write your sentences as if they are rifles, aiming as a specific target, rather than shotguns aiming a the neighborhood. Write as if you purchase PA-10 rifles from Palmetto State Armory every single weekend—which is to say that you must brush up your vocabulary every now and then— and shoot [the words] at a specific subject.

How do you do that?

Here are a few thoughts from an old journalism prof:

Recognize the target. What are you trying to accomplish with this sentence? What are you saying? The subject and predicate should work together to accomplish your purpose.

Choose precisely the right words. Most words have a shade of meaning to them. That is, they may have synonyms, but those synonyms don’t mean exactly the same thing. The good writer knows words and their synonyms but is sensitive to their meanings and how they are used. The good writer has a sense of how readers will interpret those words. Thinking hard about the words rewards writers with sentences that mean exactly what they are intended to mean.

Use only the words necessary. This gets to the heart of Joseph Wilson’s advice. The truly confident writer is the one who will let as few words as possible stand for what he or she means to say. Showering the reader with unnecessary words is the shotgun approach. As Wilson says, you may hit the target, but you may hit a lot of other things too. Hitting a lot of targets will dilute the sentence’s impact.

Let nothing distract. Our minds move from one subject to the next far more quickly than we can physically construct a sentence. While we are in the middle of writing a sentence, we may think of other things to say, other pieces of information to include. The discipline of writing includes keeping our eye on the target. It’s a discipline that can be acquired through practice.

Take the reader there. The reader will begin a sentence at a certain place. By the end of the sentence, you want the reader to be at another place. Take the reader there as quickly and efficiently as you can.

Joseph Wilson’s advice to his son is universal for those of us who love the language and want to use it well.


I asked for reading recommendations to distract us from the day’s news in last week’s newsletter and got several from faithful readers.

Sandra G: Enjoyed your “Voting” article. Looked eagerly to see if you had a watercolor of one of those wrap-around lines since hubby & I were in one for 40 minutes but it was a warm, beautiful day & we didn’t mind. One thing we’ve had to learn in retirement is to relax, we really aren’t in as big a rush as we think or like we used to be.

Curtis D.: (Distracting read recommendation) An old one but one of my favorites. The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor .

Amy L.: I just finished The River of Doubt (Candace Millard) about T. Roosevelt’s final adventure exploring the Amazon in 1914. It was incredible! It was very well researched and just spell-binding. It’s hard to believe anyone survived the trip.

Here’s my view on local voting: because of the very heavy early voter turnout, those of us working the polls on election day had a mostly very pleasant experience. At my precinct, there were NO lines and everyone was in and out in 10 minutes or less. Voters seemed happy to be participating; there was virtually no grouching or mean comments. Very refreshing. We had an abnormal number of FIRST-TIME VOTERS, and they weren’t all young people either. I would love to know the number of Blount Countians who voted for the first time. Virginia Hardwick and I (and three others) also helped with the absentee voting at local nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which is always quite an experience. Don’t quote me on this, please, but a lot of these voters are probably voting in their last election. They were all appreciative of the opportunity and MOST of them seem pretty clear on who they support.:)

And, lastly, THANKS for pointing me toward the new Murder Book podcast! I totally enjoyed the first series and will look forward to listening to this one soon.

Bonita B.: My suggestions for a distracting read are:

– Wish You Well by David Baldacci
– The Throwaway Children by Diney Costeloe
Chuck C.: I’m reading The Evening and the Morning. It’s the prequel to The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It’s a great read if you’re into this Follett series.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Sunday morning

Best quote of the week:

Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like. Will Rogers, humorist (1879-1935)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: William Seward, voting, Vietnam Voices, and a podcast recommendation: newsletter, November 6, 2020


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